Urawa Red Diamonds’ ‘respect’ for Sydney FC

Asian football expert @JohnnyDuerden has the inside word on a familiar foe for Sydney FC, the Saitama-based outfit Urawa Red Diamonds, who the Sky Blues face on Wednesday night in their first ACL clash of 2016.

Urawa Reds take on Sydney FC in the opening match of the 2016 AFC Champions League on Wednesday happy to remake old acquaintances and be reminded of old meetings.

The Japanese titan was the first ever continental team to travel to Sydney back in 2007 and drew 2-2 in that meeting back in March 2007.

It is fondly remembered in Australia for the fans and friendly atmosphere that the visitor provided (over 1100 colourful, flag-waving supporters making the trip over for a Tuesday night match is still talked about).

It is even more fondly remembered in Saitama, just north of Tokyo where Urawa play their home games.

That was the first away game in a campaign that ended with the Reds lifting the continental trophy - the first Japanese team to do so - under the guidance of a soon-to-be familiar face in Australia, Holger Osieck.

Those were heady days especially as the challenge gathered momentum in the later stages with almost 60,000 fans packing into one of Asia's best stadiums to produce atmospheres hitherto almost unheard of in the tournament's short history.

“We have happy memories of Sydney FC,” said a spokesperson for Urawa.

“For us too, it was a first time to play in Asia. Our fans and team, received a very warm welcome in Australia.

“The two games were very close and we gained a lot of respect for Sydney.

“It is an exciting tie for the opening game in the group and we are looking forward to the match very much as are the fans.”

The final group game was a tense affair as Sydney travelled to Japan. Had the Hyundai A-League club won in front of 45,000 fans then the Sky Blues would have taken Urawa's place in the quarter-finals.

It ended 0-0 but Sydney produced what is probably still its best performance in Asia, pushing Urawa back and going close through David Zdrilic unmarked in the area and David Carney.

To have the eventual winner hanging on for the last 20 minutes in front of a tense crowd was something to be proud of and appreciated as the home fans applauded Sydney off the pitch.

And let’s not forget, the Sky Blues were into their off-season after just two seasons since the launch of the Hyundai A-League.

Both domestic and continental success have been elusive for Urawa since since though not for want of trying.

Urawa Red Diamonds

If the Reds were seen as Asia's biggest club a few years ago then, that is no longer the case. Guangzhou Evergrande, another member of a tough Group H along with Pohang Steelers, have taken that mantle.

I chatted with the Urawa party after December's draw in Kuala Lumpur and while they were not exactly delighted to have drawn Guangzhou, there was excitement at an interesting group.

Urawa has disappointed in Asia since that famous win.

In those days, the champion got a bye to the quarter final of the next edition and there, the Reds defeated Al Qadsia of Kuwait only to lose the semi final to Gamba Osaka.

The Reds have surprisingly not been back to the knockout stage. There have been just two appearances and both ended at the first hurdle.

Like Sydney, there is a determination for some continental success.

It remains to be seen what happens in 2016. Urawa midfield legend Keita Suzuki has finally hung up his boots after an entire career as a Red, but Yuki Abe remains as do a number of Japanese internationals and Slovenian striker Zlatan Ljubijankic.

There have been some reinforcements.

Versatile Bulgarian defender Branco Ilic has extensive European experience and should be an asset, but the big signing of the J-League close season is young Japanese international Wataru Endo who arrives from Shonan Bellmare.

With Endo, the Reds should have more possession and control in midfield and a little more class.

The defensive midfielder recently helped Japan win the AFC U23 Championships, has a bright future and like some of Sydney's players, is looking forward to a first appearance in Asia.

“It will be very tough without question,” he told Kyodo News Agency.

“Not just the matches themselves, but the travel, the tight fixtures... I’m expecting it to be a lot more difficult than I’m imagining.

“One thing I learned through the Olympic qualifying is that you have to persevere and when you persevere, it opens up opportunities.”